Manuel A. Noriega

First a friend, then an enemy of the United States, Manuel A. Noriega (born 1934), the strongman of Panama, was finally deposed by a U.S. military invasion, captured, and brought to Miami for trial in 1989.

Manuel Antonio Noriega was born the son of an accountant and his maid in a poor barrio of Panama City in 1934. At the age of five he was given up for adoption to a schoolteacher. He attended the National Institute, a well-regarded high school, with the intention of becoming a doctor, but a lack of financial resources prevented fulfillment of this career choice. Instead, Noriega accepted a scholarship to attend the Peruvian Military Academy. He graduated in 1962 with a degree in engineering. Returning to Panama, he was commissioned a sub-lieutenant in the National Guard and assigned to a unit at Colon, the city lying near the Caribbean terminus of the Panama Canal.

Colonel Omar Torrijos liked Noriega and obtained for him the command of Chiriqui, the country's westernmost province. In October 1968, military conspirators overturned the civilian government of Arnulfo Arias (twice before turned out by coups). Noriega's troops seized radio and telephone stations in David, the provincial capital, and thus severed communications with the capital. Torrijos emerged from the coup as the strongman. In December 1969, when Torrijos was out of the country, a trio of rebellious officers tried to seize power, but Torrijos flew into David. The airport had no facilities for night landing, but Noriega lined up motorcars alongside the runway and Torrijos made it safely down. With Noriega's troops at his service, Torrijos retook the capital.

From that moment, Noriega's career blossomed. In 1971 he became useful to U.S. intelligence and, at the behest of the Nixon administration, went to Havana to obtain the release of crewmen of two American freighters seized by Fidel Castro's government. He was also already involved in narcotics trafficking. (Panama's National Guard had been implicated in the heroin trade from the late 1940s.) American officials learned that Noriega was the Panama "connection," and a high-ranking drug enforcement officer recommended that the president order his assassination, but Nixon demurred. Noriega was useful to U.S. counterintelligence. As head of G-2, Panama's military intelligence command, Noriega was the second most powerful man in Panama. In 1975 G-2 agents rounded up businessmen critical of Torrijos' dictatorial populist style, confiscated their property, and sent them into exile in Ecuador. Torrijos once said of him, "This is my gangster."

Torrijos died in 1981 in a mysterious plane crash. In the ensuing two-year contest for power between civilian politicians and ambitious military officers, Noriega emerged triumphant. In late 1983, following his promotion to general and commander of the National Guard, the guard was combined with the navy and air force into the Panama Defense Forces (which also included the national police). The following year Noriega's choice for president, Nicolás Ardito Barletta, won a narrow victory over Arnulfo Arias. But there was widespread fraud in the election. Barletta tried manfully to grapple with the country's growing economic woes, he failed, and Noriega forced him out. (Panama had received no windfall from the canal treaties Torrijos had negotiated with President Jimmy Carter.)

The reason had less to do with Barletta's economic policies than his alleged threat to investigate the brutal slaying of Hugo Spadafora, who had publicly accused Noriega of being a drug trafficker. G-2 agents had taken him from a bus near the Costa Rican border. In September 1985 searchers found his tortured, decapitated body stuffed in a U.S. mailbag on the Costa Rican side of the border. In June 1986 journalist Seymour Hersh reported that U.S. Defense Intelligence agents had evidence implicating Noriega in Spadafora's death and, just as disturbing, that in the mid-1970s Noriega had obtained National Security Agency classified material from a U.S. Army sergeant and had given it to the Cubans. In addition, Hersh wrote, Noriega had used his position to facilitate sale of restricted U.S. technology to Eastern European governments. In the process, he had earned $3 million.

Noriega denounced these and other allegations as a conspiracy of right-wing U.S. politicians looking for a way to undo the Panama Canal treaties before the canal became Panamanian property on December 31, 1999. It was becoming evident that Noriega had outfoxed his U.S. benefactors. During the Reagan administration's covert war against the government of Nicaragua, Noriega helped to supply arms to the Nicaraguan resistance called the Contras (Congress prohibited any expenditures to bring down the Nicaraguan government). At the same time, he received arms from Cuba and sold them to Salvadoran leftist guerrillas and supplied Nicaraguan leaders with intelligence reports. Although Noriega was a gun-runner, money-launderer, drug trafficker, and double agent, he was still useful to the U.S. government.

The furor caused by the Hersh articles diminished but revived in June 1987 when Noriega's former chief of staff, Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera (forced into retirement), stated that Noriega had fixed the 1984 election and ordered Spadafora's killing. He also implicated Noriega in the death of Torrijos. Middle-class Panamanians organized street demonstrations, demanding his ouster. Noriega responded by declaring a national emergency. He suspended constitutional rights, closed newspapers and radio stations, and drove his political enemies into exile. A special riot squad— nicknamed "the Dobermans"—laid siege to the home of Diaz Herrera, who was captured and compelled to recant. Church leaders, businessmen, and students organized into the National Civil Crusade, dressed in white, and went into the streets banging pots and pans. The riot squads dispersed them. By now Americans were outraged, and in June 1987 the U.S. Senate called for Noriega's removal. Noriega retaliated by removing police protection from the U.S. embassy. A pro-Noriega mob attacked the building and caused $100,000 in damages.

From that day, the administration of President Ronald Reagan began looking for a way to bring Noriega down. U.S. economic aid and military assistance ended. Noriega lamented that his erstwhile friends in Washington were deserting him. Panamanian bankers began withdrawing their support—Torrijos had transformed the country into an international banking center—and Noriega rapidly lost favor everywhere save for the Panama Defense Forces. The American strategy was to induce discontented officers in the PDF to overturn him. In this way the United States would rid itself of Noriega but not be saddled with a leftist successor to him.

Secret negotiations between U.S. officials and Noriega's representatives called for him to resign and leave the country before the 1988 U.S. presidential election, thus saving George Bush, who as director of the Central Intelligence Agency had dealt with Noriega, from embarrassing revelations in the campaign. There were dark rumors that Noriega was prepared to name high U.S. officials also involved in money-laundering and drug smuggling. As matters turned out, the Justice Department filed indictments against Noriega in federal court in early 1988, which was intended as a warning. Assistant Secretary of State Eliot Abrams went to Panama in a futile effort to get President Eric Del Valle to fire Noriega. Instead, Noriega forced out Del Valle and named a puppet president, Manuel Solis Palma.

Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis tried to make an issue of the "Noriega connection" in the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign, but Bush suffered no apparent damage. After assuming office, President Bush increased pressure. Economic sanctions severely hurt Noriega but did not bring him down. In May 1989 Noriega declined to run in the election but chose yet another puppet candidate, Carlos Duque. The opposition Panameñista Party nominated Guillermo Endara. Sensing opportunity, the Bush administration provided Endara with $10 million. Former President Jimmy Carter and other foreign representatives went to Panama to monitor the election. But as soon as Noriega realized that Duque was losing, he ordered the PDF to seize ballot boxes. When the opposition took to the streets in protest, "dignity battalions" of Noriega goons assaulted them. Endara and a vice-presidential candidate, Guillermo Ford, were severely beaten.

Noriega declared the election void, installed another puppet as provisional president, and, in October 1989, survived a coup hatched among discontented PDF officers and openly supported by U.S. forces. In the aftermath, Noriega was vengeful and boastful; President Bush, humiliated. In this despair over the nation's declining international image and concern that Noriega was in a position to name a crony as canal administrator, Bush acted. Using as pretext Noriega's declaration that U.S. actions had created a virtual state of war, fear that Noriega would jeopardize the security of the canal (which was untrue), and the firing on U.S. soldiers passing the PDF headquarters, the United States launched a full-scale attack (Operation Just Cause) with 24,000 troops on December 20, 1989.

Fighting continued for four days, at times heavy, with U.S. casualties running into the hundreds and Panamanian into the thousands. Noriega evaded capture for a few days but ultimately took refuge in the Papal Nunciature. Under pressure from Vatican officials, Noriega surrendered to the Vatican Embassy in Panama City on January 3, 1990. In a deal worked out with the U.S.-created government headed by Guillermo Endara, U.S. authorities brought Noriega to Miami for trial. However, legal obstacles and technicalities delayed the trial into the early 1990s. He was convicted of cocaine trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. He was sentenced to 40 years in a Miami prison, and was ordered to pay $ 44 million to the Panamanian government. The trial was not without controversy, however. In late 1995 charges of bribery were brought about. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was told that the Cali drug cartel had paid a witness, Ricardo Bilonik, to testify about Noriega's ties to the Medellin cartel, Cali's rival. Federal prosecutors have determined that the bribery charges are not enough to justify a new trial.

Further Reading on Manuel A. Noriega

For more on Manuel Noriega consult Steven Ropp, Panamanian Politics: From Guarded Nation to National Guard (1982); Walter LaFeber, The Panama Canal (1978); David Farnsworth and James W. McKenney, U.S.-Panamanian Relations, 1903-1978 (1983); William C. Jorden, Panama Odyssey: From Colony to Partner (1983); Frederick Kempe, Divorcing the Dictator: America's Bungled Affair with Noriega (1990); and, especially, John Dinges, Our Man in Panama: How General Noriega Used the United States—and Made Millions in Drugs and Arms (1990).